Continuing politicking between government and Albanians highlights fragility of Macedonian ceasefire

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The North Atlantic Council (NAC), the decision-making body of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), on August 21 authorized the deployment of 3,500 allied troops to Macedonia to collect weapons from ethnic Albanian militants. The decision gave a green light to US Air Force General Joseph Ralston, NATO’s supreme commander in Europe, to launch the full mission, led by Britain, within ten days to two weeks. An advance party of some 400 British, French and Czech troops had already been placed in accordance with an earlier ruling to send troops to gauge the stability of an existing ceasefire and establish contact with members of the Albanian leaders and Macedonian security forces. NATO has insisted all along that the operation, codenamed “Operation Essential Harvest,” will not go ahead unless the ceasefire holds.

The mission is composed of about 1,800 British troops and another 1,700 drawn from 10 other European countries and the United States. The troops will establish sites for collecting rebel arms. The weapons will be taken to Greece and destroyed.

Once the entire force is in place, the clock will start ticking on NATO’s self-imposed 30-day deadline for the mission. NATO officials are adamant that Operation Essential Harvest will last no longer than the 30 days. Many observers doubt that the mission will be able to fulfill its objective so soon.

The administration of US president Bush is poised to play a behind-the-scenes role in Macedonia. For instance, no new US troops will be deployed in the Balkans as part of the NATO mission. But American troops already in Macedonia, Kosova and Bosnia-Herzegovina will help with monitoring the ceasefire and reconnaissance.

Washington will also fund a campaign to shore up public support for the peace accord. The US will spend up to $250,000 on advertisements and direct mailings to every household in the country. The International Republican Institute (IRI), a Washington-based thinktank that is partially funded by the US government, has already been commissioned to conduct a public opinion survey whose results will be used to design “public service announcements.” The IRI took an active part in the media campaign that helped defeat Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia’s presidential elections last year.

Under an agreement signed in a low-key ceremony on August 13 by Macedonia’s four main political parties, the Albanian minority will be given greater political and cultural rights and the NLA will disarm. In return the Albanians are obliged to recognize the inviolability of Macedonia, eschewing any aspirations for independence or ideas for a “Greater Albania.” The time and place of the signing ceremony were kept secret until the last minute because of fear of a backlash from the Slavic public. The NLA endorsed the draft document even though it had been excluded from the political process at the insistence of the Macedonian government.

The accord calls for amending the preamble to the Macedonian constitution to delete reference to Macedonian Slavs as the only “constitutional” people and to make the county a civic society of all its ethnic groups. The 1991 constitution says that the country was founded by the Macedonian people and lists Albanians, Turks, Vlachs, Romas and others only as minorities. Another constitutional amendment will state that the Orthodox Church and other religions are separate from the state and equal before the law. The document also creates a “double majority” system in parliament, requiring that half the lawmakers voting on legislation affecting the status or cultural life of minorities must come from one or more minority groups in order for it to be passed.

The agreement further elevates the status of Albanian to a second official language in areas where Albanians comprise at least 20 percent of the population. Albanian will also come into official use in parliamentary sessions and committees, as well as in communications between ethnic Albanian citizens and government bureaucracies. However, Slavic Macedonian will remain the sole language of central government and in foreign relations. The agreement further provides for state-funded higher education in the Albanian language in communities where ethnic Albanians comprise more than 20 percent of the population. In the past, the state gave funding only to lower education in Albanian.

The accord requires that more Albanians be recruited into the police force and that Albanian police be assigned to work in communities with majority Albanian populations. An additional 1,000 ethnic Albanians will be hired as police officers in two stages in 2002 and 2003. That will raise the number of Albanians in the 6,000-strong police force to 23 percent, from their current proportion of 3 percent. The agreement requires the approval of local political leaders in predominantly Albanian areas for police chiefs nominated by the government to serve in those areas.

An annex to the accord provides for the disarmament of NLA fighters. Another annex provides an amnesty for NLA fighters who voluntarily turn in their weapons, provided that they have not been involved in “war crimes.” It is not clear who determines whether fighters have been involved in “war crimes,” nor is there a provision for trying Macedonian military or paramilitary personnel involved in such crimes. This is a serious oversight, as government troops have been involved in atrocities against ethnic Albanians. For instance, on August 12 troops rampaged through the village of Ljuboten, near Skopje, killing at least nine civilians. Ljuboten villagers accused government troops of summarily executing the civilians, whose bodies remained scattered on the streets for two days. The Ljuboten massacre was in retaliation for a landmine attack that had killed eight soldiers two days earlier.

But scepticism remains about whether the accord will succeed in bringing peace to the country. Sporadic fighting has underlined the fragility of the truce. The ceasefire has been violated almost daily, with Albanians and security forces fighting gun-battles in villages in the northern and northwestern parts of the country.

Another sign of the fragility of the peace process is that the agreement envisages a disarmament process combined with legislation enshrining constitutional reforms required to boost the Albanian minority’s rights. The legislators are supposed to act on the agreement within 45 days of its signing. There is mounting suspicion that extremist Slav nationalists in parliament will obstruct the legislation required to implement the deal. The hard-line nationalist speaker of the Macedonian parliament has already indicated that he will not put the required amendments forward for ratification until the NLA is completely disarmed and dissolved.

Moreover, there is no agreement on how many arms the NLA fighters possess. Initial estimates put the NLA arsenal at 8,000 weapons. The NLA claims to have only 2,000; the Macedonian estimate is about 85,000 weapons, not counting individual rounds of ammunition. It is almost certain that the NLA, with reasonable fears of army and police reprisals despite the promised amnesty, will be reluctant to turn in more than a token quantity of arms and ammunition.

Opposition to the agreement looms large everyone. The accord will test the NLA chain of command. There are reports of an emerging “warlord syndrome”: small offshoots, comprised mainly of nationalists opposed to any peace agreement, have been splintering from the NLA. The existence of such splinter groups would complicate NATO’s weapons-collection mission. On August 18, Major General Gunnar Lange, the NATO mission’s top military commander, told a news conference that the alliance will concentrate on collecting weapons only from the NLA. “The disarmament of those splinter groups is not part of this mission,” he said. “We are not going to disarm any organizations which are not under the control of the so-called NLA.”

Officially, the NLA denies that these groups even exist. The most prominent of these is the Albanian National Army (ANA), a shadowy Marxist-Leninist group that has sworn to fight on for a “Greater Albania” in the Balkans. The ANA earlier claimed responsibility for an ambush near Tetovo that killed 10 Macedonian soldiers, and for another attack in southern Serbia in which 2 Serbian police officers were killed. One ANA communiqué, signed by “Major General Eagle of Sar,” rejected the accord, saying: “The ANA will be the leader and the standard-bearer of the fight for national liberation. Agreements signed treacherously or under international pressure like this é are temporary and invalid.”

Emotions among the Slavic Macedonian community, whipped into fever-pitch by hard-line politicians and the mostly extremist nationalist media, seem to have been hovering on the verge of collective frenzy. Conspiracy theories abound such as that the agreement is part of a Western plot to break Macedonia up. There have also been reports of Slavic Macedonians destroying their own houses before evacuating villages in the face of NLA advances, apparently with the intention of blaming the Albanians for their destruction. On August 18, Slavic Macedonians blocked the main road in the village of Stenkovac, briefly preventing NATO-led peacekeepers from travelling between Macedonia, where their support base is located, and Kosova. Curiously, it was protesters belonging to the World Macedonian Congress, an international non-governmental group representing Macedonian immigrants abroad, who erected the blockade. This highlighted the fact that Macedonian scepticism about the accord is not merely local.

Above all, anti-Albanian feeling and hatred at the heart of the conflict seem resistant to change. When Arben Xhaferi, leader of the Democratic Albanian Party, addressed reporters in Albanian at the signing ceremony, a visibly irritated prime minister Ljubco Georgievski walked out. President Boris Trajkovski, a “moderate,” demanded a public apology from Xhaferi and accused the Albanian leader of scoring points by “provocation.”

The question is whether peace really has a chance in such an environment, in which paranoid and monolithic nationalism thrives on denial and effacement of the “others”, “the outsiders”, “the ones who do not belong”, the ones who do not “fit in.”

* Helena Bestakova is in Prague, Czech Republic

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